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Remote work could revolutionize small businesses—if they can keep up

By Ahead Thought Leadership
Woman doing book keeping for a small business bakery

Small-business owners may flourish in a future filled with remote workers, but to grow they’ll need to lean on their greatest asset: versatility.

In 2018, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, pioneered a new kind of sales pitch to jump-start its tech industry: It offered select remote workers $10,000 to move there.

“Hi, remote workers!” the program’s website stated. “We’ll pay you to work from Tulsa. You’re going to love it here.”

Founded and funded by a local philanthropist, Tulsa Remote is a unique experiment in revamping a city long neglected by tech—and so far, the results are striking. In 2020, more than five times the number of people applied compared with 2019, a result of the pandemic spurring remote workers and entrepreneurs to seek a better and more affordable quality of life. The program expects to welcome 750 more people this year. To help capture the benefits that come with a thriving workforce, including a robust economy and a diverse local culture, Tulsa offered more than just cash. It helped resettle those workers too, assisting newcomers in their housing search, offering access to community-building events, and even providing coworking space. As a result, the city brought in a greater range of workers while jump-starting its own tech economy in the process.

“If I thought about my life three years ago, I would have never guessed I would have ended up in the smack-dab middle of the country,” stated a TV news producer from Los Angeles who picked up and moved to Tulsa with her wife last year. “But it’s been such a pleasant surprise, and it’s presented me with so many opportunities.”

A shifting workforce

Tulsa is the latest site of a trend spreading across the United States: employees leaving their jobs to enter the freelance marketplace of remote work in a quest to improve their quality of life. Last September alone, 4.4 million Americans left their jobs in a mass exodus that’s been dubbed the Great Resignation. Many of those workers shifted permanently into a gig economy that now employs 53.7 million people, and many others switched to another full-time jobs, but with a simple request of their new employer: they would prioritize work-life balance and do so through remote or hybrid employment.

“What you’ve seen with COVID and the Great Resignation is that people are becoming mercenaries for hire,” says Frank Wazeter, owner of a firm that specializes in helping small businesses develop digital strategies. 

This trend will likely continue, and for small-business owners it’s redefining how they operate. “Maybe a printing shop in Boston finds a relatively cheap web designer in Kenya,” says Prithwiraj Choudhury, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in remote work and thinks small businesses are uniquely positioned to capture talent as workers disperse. Ultimately, Choudhury believes that the influence of dispersed talent and the rise of small businesses capable of harnessing it are beginning to decentralize the American economy. Take Tulsa, which Choudhury has studied since the program launched in 2018. As a result of the remote-work migration, Choudhury noticed economic ripples in Tulsa’s small-business community. For example, the wife of a recently relocated tech worker opened a new Indian restaurant that catered to online customers

—the influx of talent created a secondary level of entrepreneurialism. “Remote work can be a catalyst for small businesses in ways we don’t necessarily anticipate,” he says. 

New talent—and new talent centers

Tulsa isn’t the only place eager to draw remote workers. In December of 2021, Venice, Italy, launched a similar program to attract young professionals to live in the tourist hub. The project, called Venywhere, is a collaboration between the Università Ca’ Foscari and the Fondazione di Venezia, a nonprofit that preserves Venice’s cultural heritage. 

The aim is to appeal to freelancers and digital nomads—along with companies interested in moving entire teams to the city—by creating work spaces and services with assistance from local research institutes, associations, and foundations. Like Tulsa Remote, Venywhere helps secure housing for those looking to relocate; it also facilitates the kind of social connections that make adapting to a new city easier. One of the main supporters of Venywhere is Cisco, the global leader in technology that promotes innovative ways of working, and the company considers the program a case study of sorts. Cisco will evaluate the impact the initiative has on Venice and use it to hone technologies enabling the future of remote work.

While Venywhere and Tulsa Remote are good examples of cities hoping to inspire remote workers to relocate, there are an abundance of people who’ve already picked up and moved, capitalizing on the liberating flexibility of virtual collaboration tools like Webex. Choudhury recommends small-business owners and entrepreneurs everywhere take advantage of the rising talent market by keeping a close eye on where remote workers land. Not only will economic prosperity follow, but places like Tulsa now have a high density of available talent. As Choudhury describes it, talent attracts talent, whether a company is based there or not. A business that effectively integrates remote-work options could have a group of employees living in a place like Tulsa even if the company is headquartered somewhere else.

Another upshot of pandemic pains: Some small-business owners can now afford more talented workers. After being forced to close brick and mortar stores, many small shops moved online, eliminating the burden of monthly rent. That expense can be put to work in the form of more competitive wages, attracting top-tier talent. 

Instead of hiring a full-time staff that needs to be in the office, small-business owners can fill out their payroll with gig or lower-cost remote employees: a writer for a marketing campaign, an accountant for taxes, a software engineer to keep the web presence lively. In the past, many small-business owners were averse to adopting new technologies, often because of the initial cost or the perceived risk associated with them. But the businesses that survived the pandemic did so by adapting their business models to the new landscape. Those businesses will be the ones continuing to experiment with the remote and gig workers who will help them thrive, even if that only means updating a website or an e-commerce store regularly.

“If a business doesn’t have a website, they’ll lose customers,” says Wazeter. That’s already happening. “The small-business owner of the future will know how to run their company digitally. Socialize digitally. Mentor digitally. Hire digitally,” Choudury says. In other words, small-business owners will still manage storefronts. They’ll just do it remotely, online, with a staff of highly skilled workers who may never meet in person. For small businesses, the world just got a little bigger—and brighter.

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